Coinciding with the outbreak of fires around Pontianak and Pekanbaru, a new European Commission funded report argues better management of peat lands will help eliminate the major cause of smoke and haze in Indonesia.

Author of the report, Dr. Luca Tacconi of the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, says the fires in 2003 are a stark reminder that governments, industry and the broader community are yet to fully address the underlying causes of smoke haze in Indonesia.

“Each year the fires in Indonesia cause economic and health costs to the region, from the remote villages of Borneo to the densely populated cities of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Now the rainy season is beginning to end and we’re seeing land clearing fires happening again in places like Pontianak and the Riau region of Sumatra,” Dr Tacconi said.

“Much of the fire and smoke problem could be overcome if peat lands were better managed. The fact is, if degraded peat lands are not rehabilitated and appropriate measures are not enforced to protect intact ones, there is little chance the region’s smoke haze problem will cease anytime soon. And it is unlikely the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution will be of much benefit to any of the countries in the region affected by smoke haze.”

Better management of peat lands will not only reduce the fires that cause much of the haze affecting the region, but will also benefit the global community. Peat lands store considerable amounts of carbon that is released in the atmosphere when the peat burns. Dr Tacconi says the contribution of peat fires to total global carbon emissions is so significant that consideration should be given to tabling the conservation of peat lands at future Kyoto Protocol discussions.

While smoke haze pollution attracts a large share of public and media attention, escaped fires can also cause considerable damage to forests. According to the report, Fires in Indonesia: Causes, Costs and Policy Implications, over 2 million hectares of lowland forest burnt during 1998 in East Kalimantan alone. This probably resulted from fires started in plantations as well as from livelihood activities such as agriculture, turtle hunting, and fishing.

In contrast to recent claims that the original estimates of the area of land burnt in Indonesia 1997/98 were exaggerated, Dr Tacconi’s study shows 11.7 million hectares of Indonesia’s forest and land were burnt, much more than first thought.

Dr Tacconi also argues that in many instances fires are a simple manifestation of government land allocation policy. “When governments decide to allocate forest areas for other land uses, such as oil palm plantations, this ultimately leads to deforestation. Fire is merely a land management tool implemented after the decision is made to allocate forests for alternative uses,” Dr Tacconi said, ”When plantations are involved, concerns about deforestation should focus on land use management rather than fires.”

The fires that produce smoke haze pollution and forest degradation are the result of economic and governance factors. Using fire to clear land for plantations is cheaper than using mechanical equipment, so unless the fires generate pollution, they should be allowed. According to the report, Indonesia’s fire problem can be improved with better legislation and stricter law enforcement.

“Firstly, laws need to be implemented that recognize the economic and financial needs of the country. Even if the current law that completely outlaws the use of fires in plantations could be enforced, it would require companies to make a very heavy financial investment in other land clearing methods,” Dr Tacconi said, “Used properly, fire is a very useful tool. It would be far better to ban only those fires that have a significant haze effect, such as fires used to clear peat lands.

“Secondly, law enforcement needs to be more effective. Clear punitive examples need to be made to make companies change their use of fire. If they are found guilty, the penalty needs to be large enough to deter them and other companies from again using fire illegally.”

But when fires are used by villagers pursuing livelihood activities, Dr Tacconi argues that laws will have little effect.

“If national, regional and district governments really want small-scale farmers and local villagers to stop using fire indiscriminately, they need to implement appropriate livelihood initiatives for local communities.”

Dr Tacconi is currently undertaking further CIFOR research on fires in Indonesia. Conducted with a range of international and Indonesian partners, the research will document the economic and environmental impact of fires and examine policies to address the problem